It’s a sad statement about our wicked society when a movie about a demonic counterpart to Santa Claus has a better grip on the true meaning of Christmas than pretty much every other production out there not featuring Charlie Brown. Krampus (2015, PG-13) manages to achieve that, though. Some might claim that’s a pretty low bar to clear, rather than the sign of a good movie. While I can’t argue with the low bar, I can say that the film clears it with plenty of room to spare.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Krampus, he’s an entity from Germanic folklore who is essentially the boogeyman version of Santa Claus. Instead of bad kids getting switches or lumps of coal from good Kris Kringle, Krampus shows up and drags them to hell. Yes, that’s really how the story goes. Do some internet searches. It’s some pretty intense stuff.
Krampus the movie tells the story of a young boy named Max (Emjay Anthony) who still believes in Santa and the sanctity of the Christmas. This is despite his casually dysfunctional immediate family and his utterly obnoxious relatives who come to visit. The only other person who seems to share his sunny outlook is his German grandmother (Krista Stadler). Unfortunately, events conspire to destroy Max’s belief, causing him to abandon all his holiday hopes. This results in the summoning of Krampus and his assortment of minions who then set about terrorizing Max and his family.
Krampus is directed by Michael Dougherty. I have no idea who this person is. Whoever he is, I thought he did some great work here. First off, the intro was the best I’ve seen since Zombieland. Second, this is one of the few movies of the last couple of years where I actively thought “That’s great camera work” or “They really hit the score right in that scene” during the show. Third, and more to the point of many criticisms I’ve heard, his management of the tone was superb. It’s not like Christmas horror movies haven’t been done before. They have, but they are almost always built on the slasher formula which pretty much keeps the tone very monochromatic throughout the film. Krampus has some genuinely Christmas-type moments. It has humor. It also has a consistently sinister sort of vibe that runs through it, whether it’s the attitudes of people about Christmas itself or from the otherworldly monsters attacking everyone.
The cast isn’t all-star, but it is almost all-recognizable. You’ll spend a lot of time saying things like, “Hey, that’s the mom from 6th Sense.” In a lot of ways, it’s a bunch of actors playing their typecast roles. David Koechner is an oafish slob. Conchata Ferrell is a loudmouthed older lady who is fed up with everyone. And so forth. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s what they’re good at, and Krampus allows them to be good at it. The only characters who really needed an extra layer of believability and chemistry are Max and Omi (the grandmother). They deliver on that quite well, certainly enough to carry their parts of the movie.
The big stars of the show are Krampus and his hell-spawned minions. I am happy to say that the CGI here is minimal. The bad guys are overwhelmingly the product of masterful costume design and effects. They also aren’t boring or clichéd either, which is a huge plus for a modern horror movie. Dougherty included some fine strokes to several that, while small, made things way creepier.
So I know what you’re thinking now. How is this movie capturing the Christmas spirit? What possible sort of Catholic content could such a thing contain? Here’s how. Krampus is actually the story of Sodom and Gomorrah cast into the mold of a fable (and with the sodomy parts taken out). I offer some minor spoilers ahead.
After viewing the introduction to the movie and hearing the characters talk, it becomes immediately apparent that Christmas has become nothing but an occasion for enhanced selfishness, not just by Max and his family, but by their entire town. Max is really the only person keeping faith in all this. Once he despairs, Krampus comes for them all. It is very much like God sparing Sodom and Gomorrah if there had been ten good men living there. More than that, we find out in the course of events that it doesn’t matter what you do to escape Krampus’s wrath. The only things that matter are “what you believe and what you’ve given up” in your heart. In other words, without faith, you are doomed, and without sacrifice, you are just as bad off.
Some people will argue that there isn’t really religious imagery in Krampus as it’s all bound up in talk of Santa Claus. I’d counter with a couple of points. First, metaphors don’t require exact one-to-one alignment with their comparison material. Second, I doubt a studio could have gotten away with overt imagery and saying “Just believe in God and you’ll be fine.” Third, the imagery is there, only in a more subtle fashion. Notice, for example, that the movie makes a point to show that Krampus doesn’t attack while a hymn is playing. There are other items, but I don’t want to spoil too much.
Many people seem to be letting the grotesque nature of the monsters put them off of seeing the movie. After all, what could monsters have to do with Christmas? They have nothing to with Christmas. They have everything to do with a world that has proclaimed a holy day celebrating Our Lord’s birth to really be a time for pride, greed, and a host of other sins. I will use the director’s own words comparing Krampus to A Christmas Carol, “[These] are nightmares that show you these broken characters who experience a darker side of divine intervention; they need to be scared straight.” Nobody wants to think that there is a punishment for this sort of behavior, so they are naturally going to be repulsed by a theme of that nature.
From a content perspective, there is plenty of nightmare fuel here for kids, so they should steer clear. There isn’t much in the way of gore, though. The language is mild, save for one f-bomb. I am happy to say there was no blasphemy or sexual content.
It’s probably pretty obvious from what I’ve written thus far that I thought it was a great movie, both as a horror movie and as a Christmas fable. It isn’t perfect, but it’s actually pretty darn close in my mind. The ending has prompted some discussion among viewers as to its meaning, but I think it’s fairly obvious when you consider the story as a whole and some of the foreshadowing (not to mention the director’s comments I quoted above). Your visceral reaction of “Monsters at Christmas! How awful!” is natural, but it’s misplaced here. I promise!
Two and a half tiaras
Review by Throwback. Throwback blogs at Popin' Ain't Easy.